The China Syndrome

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The China Syndrome
China syndrome.jpg
Promotional poster
Directed byJames Bridges
Produced byMichael Douglas
Written byMike Gray
T. S. Cook
James Bridges
StarringJane Fonda
Jack Lemmon
Michael Douglas
CinematographyJames Crabe
Edited byDavid Rawlins
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • March 16, 1979 (1979-03-16)
Running time
122 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$5.9 million[1]
Box office$51.7 million[2]

The China Syndrome is a 1979 American disaster thriller film directed by James Bridges and written by Bridges, Mike Gray, and T. S. Cook. It tells the story of a television reporter and her cameraman who discover safety coverups at a nuclear power plant. It stars Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas, with Douglas also serving as the film's producer. The cast also features Scott Brady, James Hampton, Peter Donat, Richard Herd, and Wilford Brimley.

"China syndrome" is a fanciful term—not intended to be taken literally—that describes a fictional result of a nuclear meltdown, where reactor components melt through their containment structures and into the underlying earth, "all the way to China."

The China Syndrome premiered at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Palme d'Or while Lemmon received the Best Actor prize.[3] The film was released theatrically on March 16, 1979, twelve days before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, which gave the film's subject matter an unexpected prescience. Upon release the film was a critical and commercial success with critics praising the film's screenplay, direction and thriller elements and Fonda's and Lemmon's performances. The film grossed $51.7 million on a production budget of $5.9 million. It received four nominations at the 52nd Academy Awards: Best Actor (Lemmon), Best Actress (Fonda), Best Art Direction (George Jenkins, Arthur Jeph Parker), and Best Original Screenplay.[4]


While visiting the (fictional) Ventana nuclear power plant outside Los Angeles, television news reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), her cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) and their soundman Hector Salas (Daniel Valdez) witness the plant going through a turbine trip and corresponding SCRAM (emergency shutdown of the reactor). Shift Supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) notices an unusual vibration while grabbing his cup of coffee which he had set down.

Operators notice a gauge indicating high water levels in the reactor. Godell begins removing water from the core, but this is unsuccessful and they continue opening more valves to dump water. Another operator notices a second gauge indicating low water levels. Faced with apparently contradictory indications, Godell taps the gauge, which unsticks and immediately flicks over to indicate very low levels. The crew manages to bring the reactor under control and can be seen celebrating and expressing relief.[a]

Richard surreptitiously films the incident, despite being requested not to film the control room for security purposes. Kimberly's superior at work (Peter Donat) refuses to permit her to report what happened or show the film, disgusting Richard, who steals the footage. He shows it to experts, who conclude that the plant came perilously close to the China syndrome in which the core would have melted down into the earth, hitting groundwater and contaminating the surrounding area with radioactive steam.

During an inspection of the plant before it is brought back online, Godell discovers a puddle of radioactive water that has apparently leaked from a pump. Godell pushes to delay restarting the plant, but the plant superintendent denies his request and appears willing to let nothing stand in the way of the scheduled restart of the plant.

Godell investigates further and finds that a series of radiographs supposedly taken to verify the integrity of welds on the leaking pump are identical - the contractor simply kept submitting the same picture. He believes that the plant is unsafe and could be severely damaged if another full-power SCRAM occurs. He tries to bring the evidence to plant manager Herman DeYoung (Scott Brady), who brushes off Godell as paranoid and states that new radiographs would cost at least $20 million. Godell confronts D.B. Royce, an employee of Foster-Sullivan, the construction company who built the plant, as it was Royce who signed off on the welding radiographs. Godell threatens to go to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but Royce threatens him; and later a pair of men from Foster-Sullivan park outside his house.

Kimberly also defies her bosses, determined to pursue the truth. She and Richard confront Godell at his home with what they know, and he voices his concern about the vibration he felt during the SCRAM and his anger about the false radiographs. Kimberly and Richard ask if he will testify at the NRC hearings, being held at Point Conception, where Foster-Sullivan is looking to build another nuclear plant. Godell agrees to obtain for them, through Hector, a set of the false radiographs to take to the hearings.

Hector's car is run off the road and the radiographs are taken from him. Godell leaves for the hearings but is chased by the men waiting outside his home. He escapes by taking refuge inside the plant.

To his dismay, Godell finds that the reactor is being brought up to full power. He grabs a gun from a security guard and forces everyone out, including his friend and co-worker Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley). Godell demands to be interviewed on live television by Kimberly. Plant management agrees to the interview, but only to buy time as they try to regain control of the plant.

Minutes into the broadcast, plant technicians deliberately cause a SCRAM so they can retake the control room, despite Spindler's warnings of Godell's concerns about safety. Godell is distracted by the alarms as a SWAT team forces its way into the control room. The television cable is cut and a panicky Godell is shot by the police. Before dying, he feels the unusual vibration again. The resulting SCRAM is only brought under control by the plant's automatic systems. True to Godell's predictions, the plant suffers significant damage as the pump malfunctions.

Plant officials try to paint Godell as emotionally disturbed. However, a distraught Spindler contradicts them when a question is posed to him on live television by Kimberly, saying that Godell was not crazy and would never have taken such drastic steps had there not been something wrong. While the plant officials attempt to undermine Spindler's answers, a tearful Kimberly concludes her report; when she does so, the technicians at the news station cut to commercial.



Roger Ebert reviewed it as:

...a terrific thriller that incidentally raises the most unsettling questions about how safe nuclear power plants really are. ... The movie is ... well-acted, well-crafted, scary as hell. The events leading up to the "accident" in The China Syndrome are indeed based on actual occurrences at nuclear plants. Even the most unlikely mishap (a stuck needle on a graph causing engineers to misread a crucial water level) really happened at the Dresden plant outside Chicago. And yet the movie works so well not because of its factual basis, but because of its human content. The performances are so good, so consistently, that The China Syndrome becomes a thriller dealing in personal values.[5]

Movie Reviews UK noted the film is:

so accurate that, even though they're fictional, they could easily be documentaries...we see the greatest fears of the Nimby culture unearthed when a nuclear power station almost goes out of control and the men-in-suits cover it up...[unknown] to them, the entire incident is covertly filmed by a visiting TV news-crew.[citation needed]

The acting is credited also,

The power of this film is more than just the acting, although Lemmon is superb, and more than just the script. It is that this scenario could really happen...atmosphere produced in the plants' control-room is heart-stoppingly intense; characters are uniformly well-acted. I recommend The China Syndrome to everyone as an example of the dangers of money and corruption.[6]

John Simon said The China Syndrome was a taut, intelligent, and chillingly gripping thriller till it turns melodramatic at its end. He called the ending both false and bathetic.[7]

The film has a rating of 84% on Rotten Tomatoes based on reviews from 31 critics.[8]

Response of nuclear industry[edit]

The March 1979 release was met with backlash from the nuclear power industry's claims of it being "sheer fiction" and a "character assassination of an entire industry."[9] Twelve days later, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. While some credit the accident's timing in helping to sell tickets,[10] the studio attempted to avoid appearing as if they were exploiting the accident, which included pulling the film from some theaters.[11]


The film was included on the annual list of "Top Ten Films" by the National Board of Review[12] and received numerous awards and nominations:

Award Category Recipient Result Ref.
Academy Awards Best Actor Jack Lemmon Nominated [13]
Best Actress Jane Fonda Nominated
Best Original Screenplay Mike Gray, T.S. Cook, and James Bridges Nominated
Best Production Design Art Direction: George Jenkins
Set Decoration: Arthur Jeph Parker
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated [14]
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Jack Lemmon Nominated
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Jane Fonda Nominated
Best Director James Bridges Nominated
Best Screenplay Mike Gray, T.S. Cook, and James Bridges Nominated
BAFTA Awards Best Film Nominated [15]
Best Actor Jack Lemmon Won
Best Actress Jane Fonda Won
Best Screenplay Mike Gray, T.S. Cook, and James Bridges Nominated
Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or Nominated [16]
Best Actor Jack Lemmon Won
Directors Guild of America Award Outstanding Directing – Feature Film James Bridges Nominated [17]
Writers Guild of America Award Best Original Screenplay Mike Gray, T.S. Cook, and James Bridges Won [18]


  1. ^ The sequence of events in the movie is based on events that occurred in 1970 at the Dresden Generating Station outside Chicago. In that case, the indicator stuck low and the operators responded by adding ever-more water.

The Co-Writer of ' Rock Around the Clock ' , (1954) , James E. Myers , appears in this film.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The China Syndrome". Retrieved February 26, 2014.
  2. ^ "Box Office Information for The China Syndrome". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 28, 2012.
  3. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The China Syndrome". Retrieved May 24, 2009.
  4. ^ "The China Syndrome (1979): Awards". The New York Times. Archived from the original on October 18, 2012. Retrieved June 27, 2018.
  5. ^ Ebert, Roger (January 1, 1979). "The China Syndrome Movie Review (1979)". Roger Ebert. Retrieved December 30, 2013.
  6. ^ "The China Syndrome (1979)". Archived from the original on July 18, 2013. Retrieved December 30, 2013.
  7. ^ Simon, John (1982). Reverse Angle. Crown Publishers Inc. p. 377.
  8. ^ "The China Syndrome". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved December 15, 2018.
  9. ^ Nuclear Experts Debate ‘The China Syndrome’ David Burnham The New York Times March 18, 1979
  10. ^ "The China Syndrome: Special Edition". Retrieved December 30, 2013.
  11. ^ Movies That Shook the World, American Movie Classics 2006.
  12. ^ "1979 Award Winners". National Board of Review. Retrieved February 21, 2019.
  13. ^ "The 52nd Academy Awards". Oscars. Retrieved February 21, 2019.
  14. ^ "Winners & Nominees: China Syndrome, The". Golden Globes. Retrieved February 21, 2019.
  15. ^ "Film in 1980". BAFTA. Retrieved February 21, 2019.
  16. ^ "The China Syndrome". Festival De Cannes. Retrieved February 21, 2019.
  17. ^ "32nd Annual DGA Awards". Directors Guild of America. Retrieved February 21, 2019.
  18. ^ "Writers Guild Award Winners 1995-1949". Writers Guild Awards. Retrieved February 21, 2019.

External links[edit]